On Thursday, 12th January I was asked to judge the Costa Coffee barista of the Year Competition 2016. What a day!
My car picked me up to take me to the Roastery in Lambeth, the Costa Coffee HQ where beans are imported, roasted, tested and packaged. I meet Gennaro Pelliccia, a master of coffee and one of the UK’s leading coffee experts. This dude did a Taylor Swift and insured his tongue for £10 million – that’s one dedicated coffee curator! Gennaro is responsible for creating the Flat White, Mocha Latte and Cortado which we all drink today and his passion for all things coffee is infectious.
After a brief intro to my lovely fellow judge Dhruv Baker (Masterchef Winner 2010) we make our way to the lab for a briefing on the Roastery.
We meet Luke and Andrea who have set up some tests in the lab. Costa go through a physical check on every single coffee bean looking for defects such as insects and fermented beans which are acrid and removed. The beans then go through a screen size analysis, a machine which vibrates and passes the right sized beans through. Moisture check follows to make sure it’s not too high (nobody wants a mouldy tasting coffee) and the fourth and final check is the cupping of the coffee, this involves a very loud but necessary slurp from a silver spoon to aerate the coffee and test for flavour.
Loud slurping and half a cup down my shirt later (you can’t take me anywhere) and it’s onto the espresso. The Robusta coffee is the critics choice due to it’s high lipids in the structure of the coffee. This encases the cream, that lovely cream on top of an espresso. Do this right and it’s the most deliciously sweet foam.
On to the tour of the Roastery and we don some highly fashionably white coats and blue hairnets. Gennaro shows us around the site, where the beans come in, where they’re sorted and the vast chambers in which they’re roasted. The noise is overwhelming but the smell – divine. News of their new HQ due to open later this year is on the horizon and Dhruv and I both unashamedly invite ourselves over upon opening – it’s all too good to miss.
Hopping into our next car we make out way over to the event Venue, the Royal Horticultural Hall in London. The stage has been set up, the lights flashing and Lyndsey, our host is in full flow of her rehearsal.
After a brief meet and greet and lunch break it’s down to business. We’re hooked up with a Britney mic and walk though the crowd of hundreds of people to our table on the stage to judge the Barista of the Year Competition with Gennaro.
There are 9 finalists in total and the first round is based upon their Speciality Drinks. Finalists are given full creative control to present their drinks in any way they choose with as many flavours as they want. I’m being put through my paces with Arjem’s first drink, something Heston Blumenthal would be proud of. Three rounds of blowing into a chamber filled with dry ice and then sipping, with each sip changing flavours from turkish delight to different spices. He wraps us in traditional Qatari headgear and lays the table with props to enhance the experience for us and I realise how creative coffee making can be and the passion that these young baristas have for pushing the boundaries of their craft.
A few down the line we get to Lim from China with her speciality drink of Chevalier Egg. She places a mini tree with birds nests filled with hazelnuts in front of us, and presents a cold, custardy coffee drink with a deliciously sweet foam topped with crushed, toasted hazelnuts in traditional Chinese pottery. We are asked to try the foam first and stir the coffee, mixing in the egg yolk at the bottom into the custard flavour coffee. It’s delicious, something I’ve never tried before and I mark her high on her originality.
After every finalist has made their speciality drink we move onto the latte art and espresso race. Three cups of latte art are in the running and I think everyone unanimously agreed on Dhan’s Native American – a beautiful and creative profile shot with a headdress full of feathers.
Onto the espresso race and every finalist has two minutes to create as many espressos as they can – but here’s the catch – they must all be spotless, any with coffee on the cup or powder anywhere are disqualified by Gennaro. Two joint winners present 15 cups of espresso in 120 seconds … I couldn’t make one!
After a short break and adding up scores we return to the stage to announce the runners up and finally the Winner. Lim with her Chevalier Egg comes 3rd, Ashley following in 2nd place with his Sparkling Mandoria, a delicious combination of blackcurrant, mint and sparkling water within a refreshing cold coffee and finally, Giorgio Ventisei from Dundee is crowned the BOY 2016 Winner. His speciality drink the Caffe XXVI teamed with his previous heats and espresso round make him the obvious winner. After several photos and interviews I catch a moment with him to congratulate him and it becomes very apparent to me that this isn’t just coffee to these finalists, this is pure passion and creativity and the utmost respect and support between all of them.
I am off, very shortly to my local Costa to order my Flat White, a little more educated about the world of baristas who are passionate about what they’re creating and why they absolutely love what they do.